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Tuesday, 31 March 2020

We return from twenty-eight days alone in our Scottish retreat - to self-isolation in town

View of Ben Resipol, Scottish Highlands

We are back from our month-long creative retreat in the Highlands. Twenty-seven rainy days, and one snowy one. No excuse for not writing. 

I’ve been quiet for some time. I had to be. Uppermost in my mind these past six months has been the continuing ugliness surrounding Sherlock The Musical. I am still not at liberty to go into detail. Suffice it to say that the lawyers are on the case. One day I will tell my version – although who will be around to hear it remains a matter for conjecture.

Okay, self-isolation. We are among the fortunate ones. One, we have each other. Two, our house is large enough for us to avoid each other when we need to. Three, I have work on my desk – one or two paying propositions, a new novel (on which more later), and news that the book I co-wrote with Robert Stone (Chasing Black Gold) is being looked at yet more closely by movie producers.

We only set this garden out last March; it is slowly bedding in.

How else are we lucky? Well, we have a garden (above). We live in an area with few recorded cases of coronavirus so far. And we can still walk, through mature woodland and over rough pasture, to our allotment (below), where we plan the year’s fruit and vegetables.

Another young garden. All rubbish and half bricks when  we took it over, but the fruit bushes (protected by cardboard) are getting established and the lower half is thoroughly manured.

Shopping isn’t as easy as it was. Bread flour – I have been baking my own since 1971 with hardly a break – is hard to find. However, A. came home the other day with a bag of pasta flour and reminded me that we had a hand-cranked machine in the cupboard. Indeed we had. It had been there for several years, unused. So out it came.

Linguine - in case it's not immediately apparent!

I won’t say that the result filled me with a desire to make all our own spaghetti and lasagne henceforth, but it was encouraging. We’ll try again.

In a few days’ I shall talk about the new novel, which announced itself to me while we were in our Scottish retreat. I came home with 20,000 words, very wet boots and a lot of questions.

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

When the present is unspeakable, give me the warm glow of nostalgia – every time.

The 447 bus that has maintained a close hold on my affections for over 60 years 

I am still not free to talk about the shit-storm that has enveloped my Sherlock The Musical enterprise. And that, largely, accounts for my silence over the past few months. Once upon a time we were a happy creative band dreaming up a musical in a pub. It was so easy. We hardly even bothered to agree terms. That was our first mistake. But we got it off the ground, launched it, sat and enjoyed the rapturous applause of packed houses… And now look at us: no one of us talking to the other – except surreptitiously or through lawyers. No money coming in. Just bitterness, feuding, accusations and legal threats flying like wind-blown leaves across an empty stage. Cast members hurled aside on a whim. Remind me never to go near a theatre again – at least not as a writer. And I may well be saying the same about the fair city of Cologne in due course. These things can leave such a bitter taste in your mouth.

Some time soon, when the lawyers have decided how to proceed, I will be free to talk about it in detail. Right now, I am withdrawing into nostalgia.

I found this model on eBay and had to have it. The London Country Bus service 447 served the tiny little world I grew up in, in darkest Surrey, from birth to age 6. Never mind what this model says about going to Woldingham and Caterham. That’s simply wrong. This bus served Reigate, Redhill, Meadvale and Merstham. I know: I lived in all four places. Later I went to school at Caterham and took the 411 bus there, term after term for seven years, and it was a double-decker. The 447 was my bus, for my neighbourhood.

But I forgive the model-makers. They got the number right, and that's what matters right now. I have never forgotten the numbers – four four seven – nor eradicated their consoling cadence from my mind. And whenever I think of them I see in my mind’s eye this beautifully compact vehicle in all its holly-green glory. I hear the gentle purr of its engine, the swish of its tyres, but most of all I see the welcoming yellow light that illuminated so many a night-time fog, that hove cheerily into sight on so many frosty evenings. I remember how I stood, Sunday after Sunday when church was over, bare legs shivering below the hem of a cold mackintosh. And I remember clambering eagerly aboard to be enveloped in a warmth, a fragrant smoky warmth, that matched anything we ever cooked up in our own draughty living-room.

In those days – I’m talking about the 1950s – there were a number of public spaces that offered more heat, more colour, more comfort, certainly more diversion, than the homes most of us grew up in. There was the cinema, of course; there was the pub – although that was a pleasure reserved uniquely for adults – and there was the bus, especially the single-decker London Transport bus, red or green. To settle into those firm, upholstered seats, to reach out and grasp the heavy, chrome-plated rail of the seat in front as the tightly fitted doors closed and we swung away from the kerb, was to revel in a rare kind of luxury. A memory to hold close and cherish.

So now I have this beautiful model on my window-sill. I am managing to ignore the incorrect destinations and concentrate on the numbers. Four four seven. A magical combination; music to my ears.

Monday, 7 October 2019

In a maelstrom of political chaos, there are still... vegetables. And flowers. And nuts.

A selection of food gathered on a wet, cold October afternoon.

Life isn't easy at the moment. Like many of my fellow Brits I fear for our future. I am anti-Brexit and anti-Johnson. I don't see much to cheer me. Throw in the continual ludicrous utterances of that gibbering fruitcake across the Atlantic, and the general state of this fragile planet; throw in the shenanigans that have become a part of daily life since my involvement with Theatre Folk, and is it any wonder I have the urge to sleep eleven hours at a stretch? Or that my dreams are infested with bizarre combinations of such matters? 

So, on a cold, wet October afternoon, what a delight it was to come home from a walk in the woods with another sack-full of hazel nuts, to trot down to the allotment and pick yet more fat autumn raspberries, a few spuds, a leek, the last of the runner beans and a bunch of beetroot. Plus a handful of surviving sweet peas to put a little more colour on our kitchen table.

These things keep me sane, for a hour or two.

I mentioned Theatre Folk, even though I would love to forget about them. My venture into the crazy world of musical theatre in Germany is fast becoming a nightmare. With luck, I will be in a position to 'tell all' before long. And then vow never to go near a theatre again, unless as a disinterested spectator.

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

The cowboy looked me up and down. 'What did ya, lose a bet?' he asked.

So Labor Day has come and gone. Despite being preoccupied with Brexit, and the unseemly behaviour of the grotesque toffs that have infested British politics, I did note the passing of the USA’s last public holiday before Thanksgiving. It marked an anniversary.

Twenty-five years ago, on Monday 5th September 1994, I set off on a journey to get the measure of Nebraska.

I’d been studying the state’s literature and history for some time, and had made two road trips, in 1991 and ’93 – first along the Oregon Trail, then into the Panhandle to visit Mari Sandoz’ sister Caroline.

Listening to her talk about the old days in Nebraska, I decided I needed to know the place better, to get the feel of it. I came up with a journey. State line to state line, from the banks of the Missouri to the Wyoming border, from the lowest point, 840 feet above sea level, to the highest, 5424. On a bicycle, which I would have to borrow. I'd not, at this stage, heard of the annual Bike Ride Across Nebraska, or BRAN.

I started in the little town of Rulo, and over the next ten or twelve days made my way along the Republican river valley, north to the Platte, finally following Lodgepole Creek towards Kimball. As the temperature hovered around the mid-90s, parts of my face and arms turned a dark shade of brown. I developed white crow’s feet. My ankles got burned, as did the tops of my ears. My front tyre blew at seven one morning and I found to my horror that there was nothing out there to lean a bike against – no fence, no wall, no telegraph pole. I was chased by dogs, several of them. I talked to strangers in bars, cafés, in the shade of grain elevators, in small-town museums and family-run diners. I camped in State Parks and in city parks. I was haunted in my tent at night by cackling maniacs – and only realised years later that I’d been listening to nothing more sinister than a bunch of coyotes. I sheltered in whatever shade I could find: under lone cottonwoods, rustling cornstalks, and on one occasion in the shadow of a little camper-van beside Highway 30 – after asking the driver’s permission.    

After several days with a balmy wind behind me, the weather turned. At Ogallala a storm blew through town, flooding the streets and re-arranging the trash cans. By next morning the temperature had dropped fifty degrees, the wind had made an about turn. And it had freshened up some. Fifty-five miles an hour, I was reliably informed by the guy in the pick-up who rescued me from the ensuing dust-storm, took me into Chappell in his pick-up and handed me over to his mother. She fed me, then put me up for the night. Cowboys, eh?

At Kimball, you have to turn off the highway onto dirt roads to find Promontory Point. That was the best part of the ride. Now convinced that I would make it, I enjoyed myself. There was no traffic, the weather had settled down, and the fields were full of wheat stubble and sunflowers. I passed a delightful old schoolhouse, and saw a herd of deer cross the road in from of me and disappear - like water sinking through sand.

I arrived at my destination around midday and found a concrete obelisk marking the state’s highest point, over a mile high. They had a metal desk there, and inside it a notebook filled with signatures. I added mine, after checking through a few pages to make sure I was the first Brit.

Back in England, I wrote a book about my trip. I called it Mountaineering in the Sierra Nebraska. I briefly thought I’d sold it to a Midwest publisher, but for some reason they pulled the plug. It languished under my desk for many years, and then, three years ago I re-branded it and published it myself. The new title was a gift – from an old-timer I met on a seat outside a barber shop in Red Cloud. I had a cracked bearing and wanted to know if there was anyone in town who fixed bikes. ‘We-ell, there used to be a guy,’ he said, pausing to light a cigarette and scratch his head. Then, with superb timing, he added the words which gave me title. ‘But he died.’

If you’d like to read There Used to Be a Guy… But He Died, it’s available from amazon in hard copy at $10.95, or on Kindle at $4.33:


Thursday, 11 July 2019

On turning... can it really be 70?

It was a great birthday celebration, and it seemed to last all week. We had five days of visitors – from Sweden, London, West Virginia, Cornwall, Wales… people who have known me twenty, thirty, even sixty years and were still willing to travel huge distances to enjoy my company. And of course there was the party: 50-odd friends and family converging on a little village hall in the far north of Northumberland, just a hop, skip and a jump away from the Scottish border. Quaint, isn't it?
Cuddystone Hall, just a few miles south-west of Wooler, Northumberland
It was a strange feeling, seeing people connected with the many phases of my past, and realising that they were part of – well, I was going to say a jigsaw, but I feel that ‘mosaic’ would be a more appropriate word, because my career has been fragmented, to say the least. Fifty jobs and thirty addresses at the last count. But my goodness, I have collected some great and loyal friends along the way.

We enjoyed a relaxed afternoon: cakes and tea was followed by a duck race on the stream that flows down the College Valley.
College Burn, scene of the duck-race. A challenging course. 
Between us we had five grandsons attending, and I was delighted to see the older three high above us, exploring the sides of the mountains that rose to the north. I was reminded of the days, in the 1950s, when I roamed the bracken-covered hillsides of Surrey and found solace in the woods. Fortunately these particular youngsters didn’t have any matches with them.

In the evening we ate supper and danced. Well, we did our best, to the accompaniment of an excellent band. There’s always an element of confusion in a decent ceilidh, and I certainly did my best to see that nothing went as smoothly as it was supposed to. At times you can feel pretty inept trying to follow all the moves, but I take comfort from the realisation that nobody ever has time to laugh at you. When you’re ‘stripping the willow’ or ‘galloping’ through a row of fellow dancers, desperately trying to remember whether the caller said ‘left’ or ‘right’ – and in any case realising that you’re suddenly incapable of distinguishing one foot from the other – you can bet that most of the other dancers are having the same trouble.

It can be a rather forlorn moment when a party ends, and the guests trickle away into the night. When will we meet again, and all that? (Quite a thought-provoking question when you’re about to turn seventy). This was when I was glad we had arranged overnight accommodation for thirty or so in a bunkhouse tucked away upstream. It meant there was time to talk further over a leisurely breakfast, in a calmer atmosphere, with one or two friends I hadn’t seen since my 60th. (Was that really ten years ago?)

Back home there were more guests to entertain, but by Tuesday the last ones had  departed, and we were left to celebrate my actual birthday in peace. However, there was still time for one more golden moment, when a charming young woman wished me happy birthday and told me she had assumed this was my sixtieth.

My joy is complete. I shall embark on my eighth decade with hope and positivity.